Tomase: Sale starting Game 1 could be make-or-break decision originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The American League Championship Series hasn’t even started yet, and we’re already second-guessing Alex Cora and the Red Sox.
Cora announced on Thursday that Chris Sale, and not Nathan Eovaldi, will start Friday’s Game 1 in Houston. This would be mildly surprising even if Sale had looked like himself over the last couple of weeks, because Eovaldi has been the team’s ace all year and his postseason resume significantly outshines Sale’s.
It’s downright shocking, however, given Sale’s performance in a couple of recent must-win games. He recorded only seven outs in the season finale vs. the Nationals on Oct. 3, helping to put the Red Sox in a 5-1 hole before they rallied for a 7-5 victory that kept them out of Monday’s play-in game vs. the white-hot Blue Jays.
He looked even worse against the Rays in Game 2 of the American League Division Series, surrendering a grand slam in one of the shortest starts of his career. He was lifted after allowing five runs in the first inning, and once again the bats saved him with 20 hits and five homers enough route to a 14-6 victory.
Based on recent performance, you could’ve made a case for Sale being left off the ALCS roster entirely. His fastball lacked its usual oomph, he had no feel for his changeup, and he basically looked like a lesser, left-handed Tanner Houck, with all of his pitches moving in the same direction. Add the uncertainty over his ability to pitch in relief, given that he’s returning from Tommy John surgery and can’t necessarily jump into a game on a moment’s notice, and no one would’ve blamed the Red Sox for shutting him down.
Instead, they’re handing him the ball in what is now the most important game of their season. It will be his job to set the tone for the series.
There’s a word to convey the level of unease many Red Sox fans undoubtedly feel at the moment, and it’s, “Gulp.”
“There’s no hiding from it, no secret,” Sale said. “I’ve been absolutely horrible. Probably my two worst starts of my career back-to-back leading up to this. Following my last start in Tampa, I got off the mound every single day because I knew I had to get something going if we were going to be successful, and I know that I’m going to be a part of that.”
If Sale pulls this off, then Cora will add another entry to his book of postseason magic. He mentioned on Thursday that Sale had found a mechanical fix in the bullpen, adding that the last pitcher to experience such a eureka moment was left-hander David Price during the 2018 playoffs. All Price did thereafter was carry the Red Sox to a title.
It’s unlikely Sale will repeat that performance, barely two months after returning from Tommy John, but he is encouraged by improvement in his changeup and fastball command.
“We’ll see what we get tomorrow,” Sale said. “But I like where we’re at.”
The other half of this equation is Eovaldi. He started Game 3 vs. the Rays on Sunday and would be pitching on normal rest on Friday. Instead, he’ll get an extra day and start Saturday’s Game 2.
Whereas Eovaldi has dominated the postseason as a member of the Red Sox, going 3-1 with a 1.93 ERA in 32.2 innings, Sale has been a disappointment, going 1-2 with a 7.27 ERA in 26 frames. Eovaldi is the ace, not Sale.
The earlier Eovaldi starts, the more games he’d hypothetically be available to pitch for the rest of the series. Even if the days of starting Games 1, 4, and 7 — the final two on three days’ rest — are a thing of the past, Eovaldi has demonstrated his value in relief. Also, if he starts Game 1, he’d be available for Game 5 on regular rest, should the Red Sox be facing elimination.
Instead, the ball is going to Sale, a competitor and leader whose heart is not the issue. It’s his arm that represents the great unknown.
“It’s Chris Sale,” Cora said. “At one point, he has to pitch in this series. We’re very comfortable with him going tomorrow.”
We’ll see how he feels later on Friday night, when Sale will have either rewarded his faith, or provided critics with significant ammunition heading into Game 2.